It was a normal Sunday at Asbury UMC, yesterday. By which I mean Pastor Varenhorst challenged her congregation to think. Her sermon was drawn from the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead.
Hollywood films of the 1930s have not only colored our understanding of ancient Egyptian religion; they’ve prejudiced us to imagine the Egyptians preoccupied with death. But Boris Karloff’s portrayal of the avenging mummy, kept alive by the distillation of three tana leaves, has as much to do with Egyptian salvation as fruitcake does with the meaning of Christmas.
At the British Museum, there is a copy of the Book of the Dead prepared especially for Hunefer, a scribe of the 19th Dynasty (ca 1275 BCE). In addition to spells and incantations meant to evoke the favor of the gods, it also includes the list of forty-two questions that will be asked of the deceased in his or her pursuit of the afterlife. Hunefer lived knowing the questions he would eventually be asked. And he knew the consequences for providing replies that were either unsatisfactory or untruthful. Frankly, they make the Ten Commandments look like a CliffsNotes study guide. Try your hand at them today—but its O.K. to keep the answers to yourself. My current score is well below fifty percent.
- I have not committed sin.
- I have not committed robbery with violence.
- I have not stolen.
- I have not slain men or women.
- I have not stolen food.
- I have not swindled offerings.
- I have not stolen from God/Goddess.
- I have not told lies.
- I have not carried away food.
- I have not cursed.
- I have not closed my ears to truth.
- I have not committed adultery.
- I have not made anyone cry.
- I have not felt sorrow without reason.
- I have not assaulted anyone.
- I am not deceitful.
- I have not stolen anyone’s land.
- I have not been an eavesdropper.
- I have not falsely accused anyone.
- I have not been angry without reason.
- I have not seduced anyone’s wife.
- I have not polluted myself.
- I have not terrorized anyone.
- I have not disobeyed the Law.
- I have not been exclusively angry.
- I have not cursed God/Goddess.
- I have not behaved with violence.
- I have not caused disruption of peace.
- I have not acted hastily or without thought.
- I have not overstepped my boundaries of concern.
- I have not exaggerated my words when speaking.
- I have not worked evil.
- I have not used evil thoughts, words or deeds.
- I have not polluted the water.
- I have not spoken angrily or arrogantly.
- I have not cursed anyone in thought, word or deeds.
- I have not placed myself on a pedestal.
- I have not stolen what belongs to God/Goddess.
- I have not stolen from or disrespected the deceased.
- I have not taken food from a child.
- I have not acted with insolence.
- I have not destroyed property belonging to God/Goddess
In some translations of the Forty-two Principles there is one I particularly like: Is there one upon the Earth who is glad thou hast lived?
At the far left of the scroll shown here, Hunefer is being escorted by Anubis, the god of the dead, to the scale of ma’at [pronounced “may-et”], where the deceased’s heart will be weighed against the single feather of Truth. Whether personified or shown as an ostrich plume, Ma’at refers to the ancient Egyptian concepts of truth, balance, order, harmony, law, morality, and justice. A heavy heart will be eaten by Ammit, “the devourer of the dead”, and the deceased will cease to exist. But a successful weighing will bring Hunefer one step closer to eternity in The Fields of Bullrushes.
For a full treatment of the subject, I heartily recommend: